Situational Awareness and The Development of Non Verbal Skills orThe Fallacy of Conflict Avoidance and Therapy


Those of us who are victims of traumatic childhoods develop awareness skills that act like radar. They help us recognize danger zones and dangerous people. Sometimes we recognize those situations because the people that are dangerous telegraph that through their voice and tone, or through their posture and behavior. Many of us learned those skills as children growing up in dysfunctional homes.


My father was a violent alcoholic and he was married to a woman who planned and provoked situations that would result in outbursts of anger and loss of control on the part of my father. There were times that we children were led into the danger zone through her nuanced and calculated maneuvers. For our own survival we had to learn to recognize the moves in the game that would eventually end in an outburst of violence and anger on the part of my father. We learned over time to see it coming because we developed situational awareness of the atmospherics of our environment.


Dad was so physically and emotionally imposing in his rage that everyone was afraid of him. My step-mother could not stand up physically to his anger or his explosiveness, but she came to feel that she had achieved a victory over him and win their “conflict” if she could cause him to lose his composure and explode or implode in a violent and unreasonable manner in the home. My brother and I were often the collateral damage of such “game” strategy on her part. We were pawns in her chess game with my dad, and as is common with pawns, we were often sacrificed to her strategic agenda.


I learned over time that she did not pay the price for being the strategist and manipulator behind one of these one-act plays, but my brother or I did. Dad would stay out for hours or days drinking and eventually come home hung over and exhausted. While he was out, she did not know where he was or when he would be home. She would worry and cry and pace the floor, her anxiety was real and palpable. The longer he was gone the more she would rage and rant about him and his negative qualities. She would call all over town to try to track him down, but his watering holes would deny that he was there or that they knew of him. They would protect him from “the little woman” (She was about 5’4” and weighed 120lbs soaking wet and he was 6’ 3” and weighed about 350 lbs.) . Eventually, Dad would run out of money or stamina and wend his way home.


The minute she heard his car in the driveway, her entire demeanor would shift. She had two alternate strategies she would use for the next stage of the game. In the first strategy, she would become pathetic and fragile. She would pile up in the bed and cry and moan and present as if she was ill enough to need to go to the hospital. She would instruct us boys to say that we had tried to find him and tried to get the doctor but no one would respond and we were terrified. There were two or three different “dances” they would do as this game unfolded. Eventually she would guilt him enough till he confessed his sorrow and remorse, then she would forgive him and the drama would be over for that day. The second strategy was that she would become a shrew. She was a harpy who nagged and ranted and attacked his masculinity, his sexual prowess, his parenting skills, his ability to earn a living for the family, etc. . She would harp and scold and scream until he lost his composure and hit her. Then she would become the pathetic victim and he would revert to confessing his remorse again.


These behaviors were much like the cocking of a pistol. The atmosphere in the house would become a ticking time bomb. Equilibrium had to be re-established. The most common way for restoration of normalcy to happen was that something bad had to happen that would unexpectedly pull them together as a team. It would need to be something that required them to become united in their method of handling the disaster so their traditional day in and day out roles would be reasserted. She would not be fragile and ill and he would not be hung over, remorseful, apologetic and guilty in order to show her he loved her.


The most typical cathartic explosion in our house was that one of the two boys would be identified as miscreants. Some failing of ours would be presented in all caps and loud voices. It could be anything, a note from the teacher complaining about our performance or our behavior. (In my case it was almost always my mouth had run away from my judgment and gotten me in trouble, in my brother’s case he was almost always failing some assignment or task and receiving a poor grade.) Of course it could be other failures on our parts as well, failure to complete some regular task or chore satisfactorily, such as not washing the dishes well enough to satisfy the inspection, or failing to feed the dogs, the duck, or the rabbit properly, some infraction of a household rule (“What? You forgot to run the vacuum sweeper?”) At any rate, something would happen, some card would be played and my dad would either lose his composure on his own or she would provoke such an outburst by some dialogue she initiated, i.e. “I got an interesting call from school today and I am very disappointed in you……..” unleashed on one of us. My dad would ignore the first couple of exchanges but the pressure of the unfinished fight with her would be nagging him and tension in the house would be palpable. Whether he consciously understood what was happening or not, it always worked out that he would get sucked into the fray and it would end with either me, my brother or both of us getting a beating. That would be the catalyst that broke the tension and allowed a few days of “normalcy” in our home.


As most alcoholic families, we had rituals and games that enabled us to live together with a habitual pattern. There was no intimacy, there were only roles and scripts to follow. One of my first situational awareness moments was when I learned to recognize which play we were performing so that I would know which script to read.


There were rhythms to our days that allowed us to present to the outside world like most of the other families we knew. (of course I did not know then that we lived among similar families in our neighborhood. Almost all of them were working out the same patterns in their families we were in ours. The basis of the patterns we acted out were the scripts that are written for poor uneducated violent families beset by addiction). Over time I learned to read the rhythms and early warning signs. I learned to develop a radar like the DEW line used during the cold war. I had a distant early warning radar that told me it was time for chaos and violence and release of tension. I could feel the tension and measure it as if it were a temperature and I had a thermometer. I could predict the acts of the play and script of the acts. Because of this ability, I knew as soon as I came in the door that it was a bad or unsafe day to be home. I could feel it in the air.


Because of what I knew, I was in a position to delay the outburst by not following the script, but that would increase the level of tension and lead to a greater and more damaging explosion when it finally came. I could send in a sacrificial lamb (my brother) who would do something to set a match to the gasoline and be the most likely recipient of the violence. Sometimes I would volunteer to be the sacrificial lamb for reasons that at the time I did not understand. (I still believed in fairness and taking my turn.) But the same old play would act itself out in the same old way, and after the catharsis there would be peace and what passed for harmony for a while. Eventually, it would start all over again. Due to my situational awareness, I became extremely manipulative and passive aggressive. I used those survival skills extensively for many years. I had to unlearn them in order to have any healthy relationships.


These patterns in my childhood taught me to recognize the patterns of conflict and tension that are evident in the world around me. I developed at a very early age the skill of situational awareness. I am a watcher. I rarely am anywhere unaware. I never get drunk, I am never out of control and I am always alert. For me, and for those of you have traumatic childhoods these are automatic and reflexive skills. If these were the defenses you learned, you are like me. I awake from a sound sleep in an instant at a strange noise or a “sense” that something is wrong. I am instantly and fully ready to deal with whatever it is. I “see” situations when I am out in the community, at a restaurant in a grocery store or a parking lot. I am then able to make a decision; avoid, go straight, get involved, be provocative, whatever I want to do to protect myself or entertain myself in the circumstance.


This skill has helped me more than I can relate. As a therapist, it allows me to read the nonverbal and atmospherics that my clients radiate. I use my words to describe what I “see” or “sense” and ask for validation. Often my clients reject my interpretation and deny my accuracy. I always accept that gently and verbally, but I am almost never wrong. I realize that I could be wrong, and when I am I try to learn from each occasion. But usually I am correct and the client is either lying or in denial. Whatever it is, it is part of the pattern of their interactive skills and it is informative for me. I must learn from it and wait for the opportunity to present it in a hearable way for them to consider. The process is never about “being right” or “scoring points,” it is about allowing them to step out of their script in a safe place and a safe way to see if they can open their eyes and learn then perhaps choose a new script to follow. Of course, as a therapist, one must have a different script to offer them and a somewhat safe or “graduated” implementation for progress to be made.


These skills are helpful in my personal life and relationships, in my professional responsibilities and in social gatherings.


If you are a therapist or a therapist in training, and you have acquired these skills from your own childhood experience, you are ahead of the game. If you did not have a childhood such as mine, you will have to learn these skills in a more conscious and deliberate way. All of us are born with the ability to read non verbal messages. The challenge is to learn to attend to them, to move them into conscious awareness rather than subliminal processing. If you needed it to survive, you will have learned to attend to it. If you did not need these skills to survive, you will have just unconsciously automated the input process and let the information “filter up” into your consciousness whenever it did.


Learning conscious awareness can be done. There are sequenced things to ask and notice as you learn to assess a situation and label the parts correctly. This is what we call situational awareness and we work with individuals suffering from socially limiting conditions such as ADD, Asperger’s, Bipolar conditions and so on. We attempt to teach them that they must learn to read the environment and the reactions of others to them. (Even if they believe that the others are “wrong” they must learn to attend to them! Try explaining this to a twelve year old boy with Asperger’s.)


At the bottom of it, you cannot be afraid of conflict. Conflict is inherent in human relationships and most of us avoid it like the plague. You should not seek it out as an act of dominance or aggression, but you should not run from it when it is present. Therapists must develop the ability to be present and aware and unafraid when they are in the presence of intense emotionality. They must be able to function and process usefully under these conditions.


When your clients are angry or upset there is information to be gleaned, even as you help support them, calm them and focus them. Review what has been presented to you, look at the behaviors, ask about the changes in emotional status, make sure you have the words that describe the actions and the awareness of the people involved. When they have gone and the situation has stabilized go somewhere quiet and review. Replay what you experienced and ask yourself to break it down the way a sports analyst does. The ability to recognize, forecast and maneuver through conflict will help you help others. An added benefit is that it will make you safer and happier, because your scripts will be consciously chosen rather than automatically and reflexively delivered.

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